OIR: OUR INTREPID REPORTER: Nicola Smith at Off the Shelf Festival of Words 2015, Sheffield

Article published on October 30, 2015.

As October approaches I always start to get excited about the events I will be going to as part of this wonderful festival. Past highlights include Nicola Beauman who is the founder of publisher and booksellers, Persephone Books, Michael Mansfield QC, The Hairy Bikers, Jeanette Winterson and Rachel Joyce.

Ian McMillan – Neither Nowt nor Summat

First up this year was Ian McMillan, self-professed “Professional Yorkshireman”. We spent a fun 90 minutes or so with him as he read from his new book, Neither Nowt nor Summat, interspersed with some very amusing anecdotes. He reviews the papers on BBC Breakfast and his story of doing so on live TV was just one funny story told in his inimitable Yorkshire accent. Despite my good intentions I ended up purchasing a copy of the book and having it signed.

He made a real effort to write something amusing and personal in each person’s copy, and mine says “To Nicola, not Nichola, or Niccola, or Nicholas” because he’d recently met someone who spelt her name, unusually, with two cc’s.

2. Susan Elliot Wright

A Slice of Sheffield with Susan Elliot Wright

Next up was my own event. I have been lucky enough for the last four festivals to secure a grant to hold a community event at the church where I work. This year, bestselling author of two novels, Susan Elliot Wright, talked about her books and read from them both, along with telling us more about her next book and answering lots of questions from the audience, many of whom were budding writers themselves. A community event should have a link to the local area and Susan fitted the bill as, although she is from London, she has lived in Sheffield for many years and has set both of her books partly in the city.

Joan Hart – At the Coalface

Joan Hart is a former pit nurse who has written her memoirs, At the Coalface, with the help of ghost-writer, Veronica Clark. Veronica spoke first about why Joan needed a ghost-writer and this was because she could tell her anecdotes brilliantly but she needed a little help in formulating it into a story. Joan herself is a fascinating woman with so many brilliant tales to tell of her time not only being a pit nurse but nursing in hospitals and in the community. Being a pit nurse covered everything from minor injuries to men trapped underground and she spoke about how she made sure she went to every part of the pit to understand how it worked. Alongside the two ladies was a man named Brian Gray who had met Joan at a writers’ group in Doncaster, and who read two of his excellent poems about his time as a miner, one of which is featured in the book.

3. Simon Beckett

Simon Beckett

The next event was at my local library. Since cuts to Sheffield’s library service, some libraries are now run very ably and successfully by volunteers from the community and this is one of them. They had arranged for a former local lad, crime writer Simon Beckett, to come and talk about his life and his work. Particularly interesting was his experience at the Body Farm in America which inspired the first of his David Hunter series, The Chemistry of Death. The Body Farm is a place where knowledge of the decomposition of human bodies can be gained using mostly donated bodies – nice!

It’s All a Fiction

It’s All a Fiction, a readers’ afternoon, followed. Six writers attended, three in the first hour and three in the last hour, hosted by broadcaster, Trisha Cooper. Simon Toyne, Stevan Alcock and Natasha Pulley went first, each reading from and talking about their books, Solomon Creed, Blood Relatives and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street respectively.

Simon Toyne, Stevan Alcock, Natasha Pulley & Trisha Cooper

Simon Toyne, Stevan Alcock, Natasha Pulley & Trisha Cooper

Then there was a quiz and a tea break followed by Nik Perring, Marina Lewycka and Virginia Macgregor. Perring read a short story from his collection, Not So Perfect and two passages from his new book, Beautiful Trees, Lewycka read a very funny passage from We Are All Made of Glue and Macgregor spoke about her new book, What Milo Saw, and read the first chapter. The quiz was pretty hard and I didn’t win but this was a brilliant event and I hope there will be more collaborative events like this. What is it about hearing an author speak about their work? Everything sounds so interesting that there are now a few more books on my wish list. I’d already read the quite charming What Milo Saw, but now have Blood Relatives and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street on my radar, along with the only Marina Lewycka book I haven’t read yet, Various Pets Alive and Dead.

We all got a goody bag with a free copy of Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam and it was a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining afternoon.

Nik Perring, Marina Lewycka, Virginia Macgregor & Trisha Cooper

Nik Perring, Marina Lewycka, Virginia Macgregor & Trisha Cooper

Mary Portas – Shop Girl

A few days later saw me at The Crucible theatre for an hour with Mary Portas. Having read her book, Shop Girl, about her childhood up to starting to work in the big London department stores as a window dresser, I knew I was in for a treat. I love her TV programmes too as she is not only straight-talking but confident in her opinions and that really came across listening to her. She recounted some stories and anecdotes from the book and also gave some advice to a lady who was setting up a pop-up hat shop, even offering to support her by helping her on Twitter and maybe even buying a hat.

David Hall – Worktown

Then it was David Hall and Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation. In Bolton in the late 1930s a group of observers literally observed everything that people did, down to sitting furtively in a pub writing down exactly how many drinks people bought, how many sips they took of them and what they talked about, or followed them around a market seeing which stalls they visited and what they bought. What the people of Bolton thought of it all is unknown. David Hall spoke at length about how the project was started which was interesting, although I would have liked to have heard some anecdotes or observations to add to the social history aspect of it.

Kate Morton

The penultimate event was with bestselling writer, Kate Morton. I’m a big fan of her books, The House at Riverton probably being the most well-known (although my personal favourite is The Secret Keeper). She was publicising her new book, The Lake House. She spoke eloquently about her childhood on Tambourine Mountain in Australia, reading Enid Blyton novels in solitude and how she ended up getting published. Apparently, a friend said that a writer needed to be stubborn and never let anything go and suggested that Kate might have just the right temperament!7.Kate Morton signature

She read from The Lake House and then answered questions from the audience. One which came up, which I had wondered about myself, was why she always sets her books in England when she herself is Australian. The answer was that basically it is just what has always appealed to her and the first thing she wrote that she thought was any good was when she was 17 and she wrote a short story about an elderly English man (another of her themes is writing about older people). She’s an absolutely delightful person and I had my book signed by her and we had our photograph taken together.

Born Survivors with Wendy Holden

The final event was Born Survivors with Wendy Holden and this one probably surprised me most of all as I spent most of the hour trying to fight back tears. Born Survivors tells the true stories of three women who not only survived the concentration camps but also gave birth there and whose children survived the experience too. A lot of it was down to luck and timing and it’s quite remarkable given what happened to them that they came out the other side, albeit not unscathed. The three babies, as Wendy Holden refers to them, are now 70 years old.

8.Born Survivors

They met up with each other 5 years ago and are now the best of friends. Eva Clarke, one of the ‘babies’, was supposed to be at the event but sadly she was ill, but Wendy Holden spoke beautifully about writing the book, her research, the people she met and how it affected her. I had no particular intention of buying the book there and then but felt compelled to as I had to find out more about these incredible people. Wendy Holden very kindly signed my book for me.

And that concludes my Off the Shelf experience for another year! I’ve absolutely loved it and can’t wait to see what next year’s festival brings.

Nicola Smith is pictured above, left, with Kate Morton


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